Kyle MacDonnell: TV’s Forgotten Star – Part 1

In the late 1940s, stage actress and singer Kyle MacDonnell became one of television’s very first stars, earning the nickname Miss Television and wide praise from critics. Between 1948 and 1951 she hosted a number of shows and made guest appearances on many others. She took a break from show business in 1951 to have a baby and her television career never recovered. When she died in 2004, her role as a television pioneer had been all but forgotten.

The first part of this article covers Kyle’s early life and the beginnings of her career on stage, her move to the small screen and her first television show on NBC.

Early Life

Kyle MacDonnell was born on May 13th, 1922 in Austin, Texas to George and Donna MacDonnell. Her great-great-grandfather was Edward Burleson, who served as vice-president of the Republic of Texas from 1841 to 1844. Kyle was a family name on her father’s side.

When she was five, her family moved to Larned, Kansas. She later attended the Ward-Belmont School for Women in Nashville, Tennessee. Around the age of 16, Kyle contracted tuberculosis and was confined to her bedroom for close to four years. During her bedridden years she began to develop her musical skills, listening to the radio every night and learning to imitate the styles of various singers.

After recovering from her illness, Kyle enrolled at Kansas State College and later returned to Ward-Belmont for post-graduate work. It was there that some of her classmates entered her into a contest to pick Miss Air Transport Command. One of the judges was Harry Conover, owner of the famous Conover Modeling Agency in New York City. She won the contest and Conover suggested she become a model.

Kyle demurred, more interested in a career as a singer. In November 1945, she was in New York City to watch the annual Army-Notre Dame football game and ran into Conover at a party. He again offered her a modeling contract and this time she accepted it.

Kyle Gets Her Start

Her modeling career paid the bills. “My teeth and my feet kept me from starving,” she recalled in 1951. “I posed for toothpaste ads and shoe ads.” In December 1945, Kyle was chosen Miss San Antonio by the Texas Club of New York to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Texas becoming a state. In July 1946, she participated in a contest to find the best feet among New York City models and was a runner up.

Kyle MacDonnell During Her Modeling Years, Date Unknown

Later that year, Kyle got a small role in the Broadway musical Park Avenue, reportedly due to producer Max Gordon seeing her in a toothpaste ad (she would later credit a theatrical agent for securing the role). The musical was written by George S. Kaufman and Nunnally Johnson, with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

Park Avenue opened on November 6th, 1946. Despite its pedigree, the production was not a success, and closed after 72 performances on January 4th, 1947. It was Gershwin’s last work for Broadway but for Kyle MacDonnell it was her big break. She was signed to a six-month movie contract with Warner Brothers in May 1947, turning down offers from three Broadway plays, and moved to Hollywood.

Shortly thereafter, she was given her first role, a small part in That Hagen Girl starring Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan (originally titled Mary Hagen). To prepare for the role and to learn more about acting, Kyle studied with dramatic coaches to learn diction. She told John L. Scott of The Los Angeles Times she didn’t know if she’d make it in the movies, and worried about what she’d do if she didn’t:

My contract has six-month options. October will tell the story whether the powers-that-be feel I have a good chance as a film player, or not. The only trouble is that I would like to take up offers to do either ‘Allegro’ or ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in New York–and they will probably be fully cast by October. So here’s hoping I make the grade in pictures.

I have noticed that several of the newer people in films have famous sponsors. I have none. While John F. Royal, the radio executive, is a good friend of the family, his medium is not, unfortunately, movies.

Hedging her bets, Kyle got a part in another musical while on the West Coast waiting to become a movie star, appearing in the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera’s production of Louisiana Purchase, which opened in July 1947. It was a smart move. Her role in That Hagen Girl wound up being cut from the film. “You might have seen me in a single scene,” she said later, “if you watched closely and didn’t blink.” Her movie career was over before it started.

Later that year, she flew back to New York City to audition for a role in Make Mine Manhattan, a new Broadway revue starring Sid Caesar. She got the part of a singing ingenue and was back on Broadway. Make Mine Manhattan opened on January 15th, 1948.

The Move To Television

Like much of her career, Kyle MacDonnell’s early days in television are murky. Kyle’s very first television appearance likely came less than two weeks after Make Mine Manhattan opened on Broadway. On Tuesday, January 27th, 1948 the CBS station in New York City, WCBS-TV, broadcast the 4th Annual New York Dress Institute Fashion Show for March of Dimes. Held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the fundraiser benefited the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. It began at 1:30PM and featured both fashion and entertainment. Along with other Broadway stars, Kyle provided commentary during a portion of the show.

By all accounts, it was her role in Make Mine Manhattan the led Kyle to the small screen. According to director Ira Skutch, NBC television executive John F. Royal (apparently a friend of the MacDonnell family) saw her on Broadway one night and the very next day set up a live television audition for her.

NBC’s New York City station, WNBT, went on the air at 7:30PM just for the audition, which ran for seven minutes and involved Kyle singing a few songs. Royal liked what he saw and Kyle soon made a few guest appearances on NBC’s Musical Merry-Go-Round, a live music series hosted by Jack Kilty, who coincidentally co-starred with Kyle in Make Mine Manhattan. Before long, she had her own show on NBC, a 15-minute musical/variety series called For Your Pleasure that premiered in April.

Exactly when her audition took place is unknown. It had to have occurred after Make Mine Manhattan opened on Broadway in January 1948 but prior to the debut of For Your Pleasure in April 1948. Likewise, it is unclear how many episodes of Musical Merry-Go-Round she appeared on. They, too, had to have taken place prior to April 1948.

According to May 31st issue of Life, Kyle made just five guest appearances on television before getting her own show. If true, she may have appeared on Musical Merry-Go-Round five times between January and April 1948.

Kyle may also have appeared on television during the 2nd Annual Antoinette Perry Awards (better known today as the Tony Awards) held in New York City on Sunday, March 28th. Along with her Make Mine Manhattan co-star Joshua Shelley, she performed during the ceremony, which was broadcast by DuMont station in New York City, WABD, and potentially over the entire DuMont network in existence at that point.

Counting her audition, it appears Kyle was before the television cameras only seven or eight times before she was given her own television series, all within the span of four months and all while she was also appearing on Broadway nearly every day.

For Your Pleasure

Kyle’s first television series premiered on Thursday, April 15th, 1948 at 8PM on NBC. It was a live musical/variety show and lacked a sponsor. Each episode ran for 15 minutes and was shot on a studio set made to look like a nightclub. Kyle served as mistress of ceremonies and the lead performer, backed by the Norman Paris Trio. Also featured was the dance duo Jack and Jill (replaced at some point in June 1948 by another dance duo, Blaire and Deane). Fred Coe served as director and Frank Burns technical director.

Sam Chase reviewed the premiere episode in the May 1st issue of The Billboard. The only live music was a pianist, suggesting the Norman Paris Trio did not appear in the debut. Kyle sang two songs — “How High the Moon” and “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” — during the episode.

Chase called Kyle “an extremely photogenic personality with grace and naturalness, who was charming even in a sign-off announcement fluff” who “may well prove an important video find.” Dancers Jack and Jill gave a “routine” performance while comic Dan Henry suffered from poor camera work and a “tendency to mug too much.” The network, he concluded, “has a sure-fire hit in Miss McDonnell [sic], and should it surround her with proper support in the future, can have a pleasing airer in this slot.”

Kyle Sings on NBC’s For Your Pleasure, Circa November 1948

Critic Jack Gould gave Kyle MacDonnell an even more glowing review in the May 2nd issue of The New York Times, after just three episodes of For Your Pleasure had aired. He called her “television’s first truly new and bright star” who “has emerged as far and away the most ‘videogenic’ young lady yet seen before the cathode cameras.” He also praised the “freshness and natural beauty” through which she “projects a warmth and friendliness which capitalize to the hilt on the factor of intimacy that is video at its most effective.” Gould continued:

But it is in her singing that Miss MacDonnell has most immediately carved a niche for herself. If on stage her voice is a little weak, on television the amplifying qualities of the microphone stand her in good stead. Her mezzo-soprano comes over true and clear yet in a straight torch number she can inject a meaningful sultriness which is box-office plus. Thanks to her theatrical training, she also knows what to do with her face during a number, something that cannot be said for many feminine vocalists accustomed to the unseeing microphone. Her change of expression compliments rather than contradicts the lyrics. All in all, Miss MacDonnell is providing that rare treat among performances–the vivacity of youth combined with professional stage presence.

Gould was critical in his review, although not of Kyle herself. The Norman Paris Trio, he wrote, “suffered from a certain sameness which might be alleviated by more attention to the melody and less to tricky effects.”. There were problems, too, with the quality of the lighting, which ranged from “almost blotting out Miss MacDonnell and the other artists in a haze of whiteness and at other moments reflecting both skill and thought.” He was certain, however, that additional rehearsal time would alleviate such problems.

Almost overnight, For Your Pleasure turned Kyle MacDonnell into one of television’s first stars. It helped that there weren’t a lot of shows like hers on the air. A ban on live music on television, implemented by the American Federation of Musicians in February 1945, was lifted less than a month before For Your Pleasure debuted. The networks immediately set about translating their hit radio shows to television. As Jack Gould indicated, however, not every radio performer was able to transition to television.

The May 28 issue of Time included an article about the growing influence of television and its future, featuring a photograph of Kyle MacDonnell. Most singers, the article concluded, were uncomfortable at the prospect of appearing on television and found the “telecamera’s unwinking stare an embarrassing experience.” But not Kyle. She was a notable exception and “was already becoming television’s No. 1 pin-up girl.”

Days later, Kyle graced the cover of the May 31st issue of Life. Inside, a brief paragraph explained her success:

Kyle MacDonnell […] has what is known flatteringly in television circles as “a living-room quality.” This is a cross between professional stage presence and conversational intimacy, between American girlishness and blond sexiness. Her catch-all appeal nets strangely assorted fan mail from grandmothers, grammar-school kids and ardent bachelors.

In July, The Billboard declared television capable of “making stars out of personalities either new to show business or who have batted about in other branches before achieving recognition in tele.” Kyle was given as an example, alongside Bob Smith, Gil Fates, Mary Kay Stearns, Bob Emery and others. They were said to be the names “widest known to viewers in the present and nearest future. They are the first tele luminaries who may be remembered as pioneer stars in years to come.”

For Your Pleasure was given a special Wednesday airing on June 23rd from 8:15-8:30PM due to a scheduling conflict with coverage of the Republican National Convention on Thursday, June 24th that pre-empted the series. It would move permanently to the Wednesday 8-8:15PM time slot beginning July 7th. The very next week, however, the series was pre-empted by coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

A total of 20 episodes of For Your Pleasure were broadcast between April and September 1948, the last of which aired on September 1st. The following week, Kyle began her second television series, this one with a sponsor.

Check back soon for Part 2, which will cover Girl About Town, Kyle’s second TV series that ran from September 1948 to June 1949, and the second incarnation of For Your Pleasure which followed after Girl About Town was cancelled.

Update: Part 2 can be found here.

5 Comments

  • Bob says:

    Very nice start. Can’t wait for part 2.

  • Alex Isabel says:

    Kyle was a featured performer on the WNBT 10th anniversary program in 1949, which is the only time I have seen her. A talent and a beauty! Good to see a tribute to her.

    • Robert says:

      The WNBT 10th anniversary show is one of eight TV programs featuring Kyle MacDonnell known to exist today. It’s a fascinating curio with some very rare kinescope footage and, of course, Kyle gets to sing a few numbers.

  • Carl says:

    I think I previously put this on the wrong comment section.

    Very enjoyable article. The Archive.org site has at least one episode of her show from the Dumont network. I can see why she was a star than.

  • David says:

    This is a fantastic overview. You must have put in hours and hours of research for this. It is a statement on how fleeting fame can be. Ms. MacDonnell appeared on the cover of “Life” in 1948, yet is so barely-remembered today.

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